Posts tagged: character

Picture Exercises…

From time to time, I have taken acting classes. While studying at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, I learned a technique called the “Picture Exercise” where the actor finds a picture of a person/character and recreates the picture by recreating the exact pose and costume.  This exercise helps the actor find specific character traits to incorporate into life-like behavior for the character.  Once the actor is dressed and posed like the picture, the actor must answer one question, “What does the person in the picture say at that moment in time?”  In order to answer that question, the actor must get a sense of the inner and outer voice of the character/person in the picture.  The actor has to create backstory and has to create the moment before.  The actor has to know what frame of mind the person in the picture is in, where they are physically, how they move, if they move, and why they move.  Then what do they sound like when they talk, do they have an accent, a lisp, are they loud or quiet…

I did my exercise from a picture of Sethe from Toni Morrison’s Beloved who is patterned after Margaret Garner, the slave who killed her young daughter rather than let her return to slavery. I used a photograph by Ken Regan (found in the book Journey to Beloved by Oprah Winfrey) on page 48.  The actress who played young Sethe, Lisa Gay Hamilton has a video of that scene “get in the shed”  and while I did not recreate her scene, I did recreate her look and the look of the babies for my exercise.  The picture I used was of Sethe holding her two infant daughters in her arms – in complete controlled hysterics.  I made my costume, bought two dolls – a small brown one and a larger white one, as there are seldom brown dolls to be found in stores.  I bought paint and mixed it to get the perfect hue and painted the white one brown, after the paint dried, I glued hair onto the head in little braids all over. I made dresses for the babies.  Grabbed a knife – one that could slice skin and created and reenacted what I considered fitting backstory that would make a mother slit her baby’s throat.

What did she say?  “Dey be dead or dey be free.”

I always liked the picture exercise but hadn’t thought of using it for a writing exercise until I participated in a playwright’s workshop at Native Voices the Autry with Bernardo Solano.  The seminar was right around the time that I lost my niece and I needed to do something to get my mind off my grief.  I needed to write and I was craving the company of other writers…  It was hard to focus; however, when we were asked to select a picture and write whatever it inspired us to write, I found the selection process somewhat soothing.  I selected a picture of a man and an infant lying dead on stone steps.  The picture began to speak almost immediately – “the bombs came in the night…”  The resulting piece is a 10-minute play titled MILK DUST.

I don’t usually do writing exercises because I believe to get better at writing, you have to write…  Writing is like doing pushups, the only way to get better at pushups is to do more pushups.  I do like this exercise though; I like the way it can be used from the acting and the writing perspective. It’s close to what I do in my head when I visualize the characters that I am writing about, when I am listening to what they say.  This exercise is a perfect way to find an unexpected way into an unexpected play…

The subConscious…

Last night I was dreaming about writing Fiddler’s Bridge.  I was dissecting the connections and characters and what their deals are.  I kept running through what was going on in my story all the while trying to sleep.  I awoke this morning wondering why in the world I was dreaming about my darn story.  This is not something I do in the early stages, it usually happens as I approach the end of Act One or the beginning of Act Two.  I was still tired so I tried to go back to sleep.  All I wanted was fifteen more minutes to make up for the interrupt – but that interrupt just continued right on through my extra fifteen minutes. 

“Okay, okay, I see the point where she takes her moment.  I won’t forget.  Yes.  I hear the silences.  Now, can I have my fifteen minutes?”

Thus went my conscious conversation with my subconscious.  It has got a whole lot to say about the structure of the subconscious world of the play.  How does one do that – write the subconscious world?  I try not to think about those kinds of things too hard; it normally takes care of itself without me having to be so aware of it.  My guess is that I have to approach this piece in a new way (along with some of my old ways).  This is about the only place in my life where I can embrace change without too much kicking and screaming.

I trust my subconscious – like hearing from it – it’s free to be…  Sounds like a dream, feels like a dream but doesn’t need interpreting.  It’s always pretty clear and sure of what’s needed to accomplish the task.  It abides in the secret place with my spirit man and is more in tune with the deep flow of things because it is uncensored and un-distracted by life and sleep… 

So on to the sub area…

Building Houses…

 

I like watching houses being built especially if they have basements and the ground has to be dug out.  I like watching the pouring of the foundation and the laying of the cornerstones.  I like watching the leveling and anchoring.  I like seeing the little by little progress that eventually ends up being a finished house ready for furnishing.  I like knowing what the inners look like… 

The new dream house for the Home and Gardens network looks like a cabin on the outside but when you go inside, it is a completely modern house.  It’s beautiful (as they always are) but I was shocked by the blatant contrast between the outside and the inside of the house.  I actually gasped and not in a good way because I was thrown for a loop.  But, I was totally intrigued by the contrast and beauty of the house so I could not help looking at every nook and cranny…  And for that split second – at the moment of my gasp – I thought about theater, how the most effective pieces make you gasp as well.  They catch you by surprise and take you to places you never thought you would go to or move you in a way you never thought would be possible.  My first viewing of the house was like watching the revelation of a character whose outward appearance does not accurately depict who he/she is – “the secret”.  But, looking a little closer at the inners when exposed, you suddenly know who they are and why the façade.  And more exactly, why this façade in its inaccurate depiction of the character is still spot on with regards to the secret. 

Secrets – they always cause some kind of friction when revealed.  Quietly or out loud, privately or publicly, a secret revealed changes the atmosphere…  Secrets are always enough in my book to drive a good story or build a good character.  They also make for good gasping moments. 

I’ve been thinking…about capturing that gasping moment somehow in my new play…  So, I’m digging deep.  I have started building this house – this play – from the earth out…

Listening…

 “Leave dat back dere.  It done.  Let it stay done.”                                                                        Maria  from The Grass Widow’s Son

For a few days and all day today, I have been hearing the above words from the last play I wrote.  At first, I couldn’t place the voice or the words; only the diction was familiar to me so I had to do a search of a few plays just to find out where it was coming from.  Since I am trying to “go with the flow”, I have to at least entertain the thought that part two of The Grass Widow’s Son might be knocking at the door even though I am trying to write a new piece…  Running the “why’s” and “how comes” through my head, I can see that it could be because I have a pressing issue that I need to suppress in order to write my next play.  It’s done and I need to let it stay done.  I need to leave it in the past and deal with it on another level – later.

It’s a really strange feeling to have your characters give you advice after the writing process is over…or not…  I did have a faint thought when I finished The Grass Widow’s Son about what the journey down that mountain would be like.  What a kicker if I have to write part two along with Fiddler’s Bridge – one day this one, next day that one…  Or, it could really be Maw Ria, (named after my great great grandmother) simply telling me to push through the past and do what I got to do now…Now…

Just yesterday, I was debating the state my new play would take place in.  Today, I understand that it was never a debate but the pull of the land – not on the piece but on me.  I’m not finished with the region depicted in Grass Widow and it’s not finished with me…

I’m still excited about writing Fiddler’s Bridge…still expectant about the journey…still going with the flow…  And, whatever else is calling out to me, I’m leaving room for it…  I’m listening…

Part 5 (or) Some and Summation

I think, then, as I wrap this monster up, that the thing to remember is that we are all of us aspiring towards the extraordinary.

This is not an easy, or necessarily “friendly”, field.  Neither is the theater industry is a snake-pit either.  (Hello Hollywood!)  But the journey of the creative spirit continues to ask of us an incredible balance:  making art for art’s sake is one thing, commercializing it quite another.

If a theater company is interested in diverse theater, or if a theatre company generally produces plays about/by men, and if I am a white female playwright, do I keep writing the way I have, or do I write more characters of color/or/male?  How do we maintain our integrity in our strides to get ahead, be we author, producer, or artistic director, while we also strive to maintain cultural “fairness”?

Or is thinking about it too much a danger of another sort?

As a literary manager, I must remember to value balance – I would not want to see a whole season of plays written by “privileged white men” anymore than I would like to see a whole season of just about anything else.  The key is to create a balance within the designated aesthetic of any given theater company… And the theatre company itself has every right to decide what that aesthetic is.

My job as playwright then is to try to find theater companies who’s aesthetic matches my own… or even (perhaps) those theatre companies who look to be open for a feminine revolution.

The struggle then continues to be both global and internal; to engage in the community we so want to conquer, but to do so as best we, the individual theatre artist, can.  We will continue to juggle our own perspectives of what makes a play “good” and what makes it “necessary” and we will continue to fight for those that stir our convictions.

Meanwhile, there will continue to be conversations among those at the top and between those on the bottom, about how in the world to manage things better…

I guess, what I’m saying is, I can’t wait to be one of those people at the “top” – where the discussion is less about surviving as it is about setting the trends.

Banging my Head Against the Wall

Sometimes a girl gets frustrated; with her messy desk, with her lack of internal thesaurus, with the stack of plays next to her and lack of productions behind/before her, with email, with the BP oil spill, with having to work for the Census because she’s STILL unemployed…  Sometimes a girl gets so frustrated, so overcome by her own seeming inertness, that she dreams of action, even if it’s the bang-her-head-against-the-wall kind.  So what does the girl actually do in these situations?

I suppose she writes a play about it.

I used to rub my eyes in confusion when other writers would lament the difficulties of writing from their own experiences – since all of my plays are pretty much beyond the realm of The Real, it had never been a problem for me.  In fact, I quite enjoyed the fact that I wrote so fantastically…  Sure, all my leads are women, and sure, they share some of my nutty neaurosis… but surely that’s where all the “Me” ended.  So imagine my surprise when just this last month I sat down with all my frustrations, all my rage at the BP oil spill and my lack of solid employment, and wrote a play.

In two weeks.

Unbelievable.

Unbelievable because I’ve never written a play in two weeks!  (Not unless it was a little nugget of a script.)  I was flabbergasted – and super excited – and also intensely uncertain as to its value or merit.  You see, this play was definitely about me this time – a hyper-charged “me” in disguise to be certain – but there was the unemployment, there was the Census, and there, center stage, was my heartbreak over the BP oil spill.

You see, I may not be able to do much about my current state, or the current state of the world, but I could create a character who could. I could endow this character with the supernatural pull that I myself lack…

So I did.

I was no longer just pulling my hair out, banging my frustrated head against a wall!  I was engaging in some urgent spiritual catharsis, and making a play in the process.

And I did so because I’m a writer.

I wrestle with the notion of striving for a career in “entertainment” when the world is as crazy as it is… sometimes it feels selfish, others like a coward’s ploy… but I think all this observational anxiety just comes with the territory – the sit-on-the-perimeter-to-observe-and-report territory, that a writer occupies.

Even as I sit in fear of this rocky economy, listening to theaters who are afraid to take a chance on new work, accepting pats on the back from my peers who also sit in dread, I’m able to recognize this – I’m able to sit with the muse and get to work – because that’s what I do.  It has never been as obvious to me, this commitment and actuality of the writer’s life, as it is right now amidst my own personal panic; I can’t plug the hole in the Gulf, I can’t MAKE someone hire me, but I can write a play about a woman so affected by the world’s current state of crisis that she becomes more than herself in a bid to help it.

And I think that has value.  The job of the playwright is, after all, to reflect his/her time through story, isn’t it?  So now I task myself with revisions, and I cheer myself forward along this path, my path, the dramatist’s path… it’s a strange sense of comfort to have found in this summer’s storm, but I cling to it.

I have to.  The world is too crazy at the moment for me to find a foothold anywhere else.

~Tiffany Antone

Study to Show Yourself Approved…

Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”  2 Timothy 2:15.

The above is one of my favorite scriptures.  I hear it in my head when I am chug-a-lugging along pushing against the stones.  It is a sort of affirmation for me; encouraging me to continue the study of seemingly unconnected things – dirt, music, planets, etc…  I am always reading tidbits here and there about this or that…studying…to release stress or because I run across something that gets my attention.  The information bits always come in handy especially when I need to meet a deadline and don’t have time to research (because the play I just spent all my time researching is not ready to be written so I have to write something else and write it quickly).  I notice that my subconscious will unflinchingly pull a tidbit from the annals of my mind that will fit…perfectly…into whatever I am writing.  I used to think that I had all this useless information in my head and what wasn’t useless was so disconnected that finding what to connect it to would be a serious challenge.  Except…when interpreting dreams, I find the tidbits come in handy.  In dreams, all information is relevant as it can reveal the unknown, all that disconnected information finally serves a purpose.  I believe that is why dream sequences show up in my work; it’s part of who I am as a woman, part of that “write what you know” thing.  I know dreams, flashbacks, and things of the spirit… 

There is a play, Body Indian, by playwright Hanay Geiogamah.  In this play, Geiogamah uses the sound/symbolism of a train; his notes set up the business of the train. 

“6. There should be a loud, rushing sound of a train starting off on a journey to signal to the audience that the play is beginning and Bobby’s entrance can be emphasized by the distant sound of the train.” Hanay Geiogamah

I could hear that train for months after reading the piece; it was haunting… moving…beautiful.  It affected me.  It made me want to create moments like that in my own writing.  As long as I am stretching myself as a writer, I know that eventually I will be where I envision myself.  When I write, I hear sounds in my head sometimes but I had never thought to make the sound a character until I read Body Indian.  Perhaps that is just my response to the piece but the train was a profound presence.  An acting instructor of mine told me that if I could see it so would the audience.  I could see that train as I read; I must admit, I have been devouring Geiogamah’s work ever sense.  How to make the sounds visible — that is the question.

In the night, as I write, I like to listen to music, especially violins. I have begun a play called Fiddler’s Bridge; it is my hope to make the sound visible in this piece.  I am listening — as it finds its way to the page — for the sound of its song…

Those of us, who ride the night winds and the morning breezes, who straddle the fence of crazy and sane, must study…always…at our craft.  Earning the “wright” in playwright through diligence and preparation…unashamed and unapologetic for the feats we attempt.  We are the catalogers of our time and must all play our part in marking his/her/our/story.  We must continually grow as artists so our gardens are full of fresh vegetables and herbs and words…that communicate humanity or if so be inhumanity…

At work, my first cup of tea had the teabag wisdom words from Goethe

“Choose well, your choice is brief and yet endless.”

Teabag wisdom comes from the little square piece of paper at the tip of the string holding together the tea leaves found with most Celestial Seasoning brand.  I thought the quote profound.  The theme had been cropping up these past months in different aspects of my life… Well, life abounds with choices, so maybe not so profound afterall.

Onwards with my day.  I bring up the news and use the headlines to poke my imagination awake. What’s happening in my world? Further along I plant the question how some stories fit into the theme and layers of my play.

The creative sources are abundant:

• the headlines of your favourite online or printed news cast
• a snippet of a conversation you couldn’t help overhear
• a momentary image you witnessed on your way to someplace or while sitting somewhere suspended in time
• an incident with someone close to you that incites something deeply buried in your nerves

BP’s “Deepwater Horizon” blowout from 5 weeks ago has been prominent in the headlines.  Today the company is attempting a Top Kill to choke off the oil spill.  Other headliners today included Hillary Clinton’s reaction to another provocation by North Korea accused of sinking a South Korean submarine.  And there was a short piece about  a US Activist, Lori Benson, who was released on parole after spending 14 years in a Peruvian jail.

What is important to me?

There are months, weeks, days and moments when I don’t want my world to be so vast. I can imagine myself to be content to be in my living room, drinking wine and listening to my favorite music and nothing more, except for the simple companionship of my dog.   It’s not easy to be removed from the outside world for very long.

A walk one block from my apartment and there is a homeless guy resting on the side of the church building. He’s invisible to the people attending the gatherings there.  My mind moves on, and wander to asking why it’s only the US government wagging its finger at BP for the oil spill.  Are my news sources limited?  Where is the real source of good objective news reporting? This oil spill is a global mess. We share this big ocean and shouldn’t we all do something, a little something?  A sense of powerlessness tinges my outlook.

I’ve got things to do, and it’s a goddamn long list:   a functional design spec due, meeting with users and the developers; a status update to my manager… It’s almost lunch.  I hanker for sushi… haven’t had it in a while.  The Gulf of Mexico is a spawning ground for the critically endangered bluefin tuna. I’m going to New Orleans in mid June, and I’m looking forward to the seafood feast.  Meanwhile, the shrimp farmers have already noticed the effects of the spill in their industry. I should go for a walk during lunch; get fresh air and exercise. Or I can hole up in the non-descript cafe down the street and bury my head in a book.

My mind, cluttered with thoughts fighting for a slice of time and attention, distracts me from a purpose (which is now a blur) , and I feel exhausted.  My precious time and energy had bee dissipated away into churning thoughts and worry.  I have 10 minutes left of my lunch so I pick up my book:  The 2nd section in on Love.  The topic is: “Love is Disciplined”. (Source: The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978)

“Because genuine love involves an extension of oneself, vast amounts of energy is as limited as the hours of our day. We simply cannot love everyone. True, we may have a feeling of love for mankind, and this feeling may also be useful in providing us with enough energy to manifest genuine love for a few specific individuals. But genuine love for a relatively few individuals is all that is within our power. To attempt to exceed the limits of our energy to offer more than we can deliver, and there is a point of no return beyond which an attempt to love all comers become fraudulent and harmful to the very ones we desire to assists. Consequently if we are fortunate enough to be in a position in which many people ask for our attention, we must choose those among them whom we are actually to love. This choice is not easy; it maybe excruciatingly painful, as the assumption of godlike power so often is. But it must be made. Many factors need to be considered, primarily the capacity of the prospective recipient of our love to respond to that love with spiritual growth.”

Every story is about love is what my writing mentor tells his students.

I am curious about the choices of my protagonist and the antagonist of my story in their blind quest to get what they want in the face of adversities. The dangers they face in their journeys faced with the choices with their limited and unlimited capacities for love.

Choices galore. I think I understand what “choice is brief” means.  I am walking on this planet in blip of time, and my characters have an even shorter lifetime – less than 2 hours.  I’m sure someone, one day, will write into their story about the Deepwater Horizon Blowout and how it affected somebody – maybe somebody who asked “What’s a bluefin tuna?”

Labor Pains

Ahh, the pains of labor… is there no better comparison for the birthing of a new play?  Late nights, indigestion, dark half-moons hugging your eyes, and a strong, unflinching desire to just get it OUT?!

For what else is writing if not it’s own sort of miracle of creation?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as a single woman who is at that delightful age when all around her is BABIES, I can’t help but wonder when I’ll get to nurse something along that talks back, spits up, and laughs at me on occasion… In the meanwhile, I get to wrestle with invisible creatures with their own amazing power of will… and it never ceases to amaze me how they do it!

What do you mean you’re a puppet?  I don’t know anything about puppets!  I didn’t imagine you a puppet when I sat down to write this thing… Are puppets expensive?

OR

Did you just hit her?  Your own mother?  In the jaw?  What were you thinking?  What does this do to my play?

OR

If you can see your own memories floating around you… I mean, like really see them… physically… then you just raised the price of go-to capital needed to produce this thing.  You need to get a job to start paying for yourself, you imaginative magical trollop!

But it always works out, because it’s this stubborn wonder that gets me going the most.  I really think that it’s these moments of “WHAT the F***” that let me know I’m on to something good… maybe even great.  It’s the muse’s way of saying “Oh, I think we can do better than that.”

And you know what?  No matter the pain, no matter the exasperation, that crafty muse of mine is usually right.

So even when the result is “I was in labor with that play for NINE whole MONTHS, and look at it!  It’s still all over lumps and bruises!”  (sigh)  At least I’ve got a good story to tell… holding the “scrapbook” in hand, proud “parent” to some crazy new world…  getting ready to send it out for all to judge.

I think David Lindsay-Abaire said it best in his forward for Wonder of the World.

Your child might swear too much, or have a funny birthmark, or an odd way of obsessing about the weather, but still he must be sent out into the world, warts and all, to fend for himself.  And you hope he’ll find friends who will love him for who he is.  I hope, dear reader, you become one of those friends to this, my hyperactive, potty-mouthed but loveable child.

Ahh, yes, labor pains, growing pains, so many pains… Indeed!

~Tiffany

COLLABORATIVE WRITING

Working on Wind in the Willows made me think about collaborative writing. During what is called (by whom we don’t know) the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement, I worked with a cast to write a play about the Canadian suffragists, during what is called the First Wave of the Women’s Movement.

I researched, decided on the characters, wrote an outline, and sketched out the scenes. Then, I joined a cast of five actors and we improvised. The dialogue and eventually Nellie! How The Women Won The Vote, grew out of that work.

It was often exciting, sometimes very frustrating, and in the end, truly rewarding. We learned a lot about Canadian history of that period, beginning with this: No woman, idiot, lunatic, or criminal shall vote.

We also learned something about our own assumptions and prejudices about gender roles. In 1915, the suffragists held a burlesque of Parliament in which the roles of men and women were reversed. We wanted to recreate that but I couldn’t find a copy of the piece. Nobody seemed to have written it down. (Nothing changes in experimental theatre.)

So, we tried to improvise one in which giving men the right to vote was debated. We assumed that when they were in power, the female members of Parliament would smoke cigars, shout “Har, har,” clap each other on the back and talk about backroom deals and money. In short, they would act like men. It didn’t work.

Then, the penny dropped. If women were in charge, their values and attributes would be respected and they would treat men the way they were treated. Men, those second class citizens, would have to be taken care of, treated with chivalry, and ultimately dismissed. It worked like a charm and the Mock Parliament debated questions in 1915 that were still being debated in the 1980’s.

Here’s a bit of it:

LILLIAN (Government)
“Madame, Speaker, it’s a well known fact, and I speak as a mother, that the male child is more difficult to toilet train than the female child, and the same would undoubtedly hold true when training men in parliamentary procedures.

CORA (Opposition)
Speaking as one who is rather keen on men, I submit it is poppycock to shut out half of the world’s population simply because of a minor biological difference.

LILLIAN (Government)
This difference. A minor one, you say? Let me appeal to your finer sensibilities, woman to woman. Would you want this room, this very room, filled with the reek of cigar smoke? Would you want to hear the clink of brandy glasses in caucus? Would you want the halls festooned with spittoons, echoing with ribald laughter? Think. Can you, in all honesty, still say a minor difference?

And have you considered the suggestive nature of male attire – the colored waistcoats, the embroidered suspenders, the bay rum behind the ears, the waxed ends of moustaches and the tight trousers?

FRANCES (Opposition)
My husband doesn’t want the vote. He’s the power behind the throne. That’s good enough for him.”

I think we’re in what’s called the Fourth Wave of the Women’s Movement now and the debate about gender roles and women in power isn’t over yet. Hillary Clinton might have a lot to say on the subject.

There’s a one woman play if I’ve ever heard of one.

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